Talking Political Philosophy with Family

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    I wanted to share something that I’ve been dealing with lately. My 67-year-old father, for all intents and purposes is a left liberal on most issues (despite his insistence that he’s moderate). He also reads lots of books and carries himself as a knowledgeable person of pleasant demeanor. I’ve tried talking to him about some of the logical fallacies in his views but he politely retreats from addressing them. Has anyone else had this kind of issue talking to someone in their family about political and philosophical issues?

    I wrote this in my journal today after a conversation ended. I meant to post this on Goodreads (a website that he frequents) so that he would see it without me directly addressing it to him (however I found out after visiting Goodreads that they only allow 470-character updates, oh well). I know that after reading it he would know it was about him. I want to keep trying to talk to him but I just don’t know where to go from here.

    I recently tried to discuss with someone close to me philosophy and how their political and philosophical views square with their Christian faith. It was very unproductive.

    I felt that this person ignored many of the tough questions I asked of them, and when I brought this to their attention after the fact, they responded only that I too had ignored some of their questions. Since the entire discussion was a lengthy email exchange, one can read the conversation we had and make that determination. I can say with all confidence, if there was question of theirs that I didn’t address, it was purely unintentional. I felt that I had done my best to address any questions this person had, and then some. I then repeated one or two of my most important questions, hoping that they would then provide honest answers, but this was not forthcoming. Rather than further delve into these issues with me, this person repeatedly advised me that “people should avoid talking about religion or politics because it leads to hard feelings”. I have yet to experience these “hard feelings”. Granted, I’ve had negative feelings, as in disappointment and disillusionment, but never anything I would describe as “hard” feelings (anger, resentment, hatred).

    It also left me crestfallen that this person reduced my thoughts and concerns to something as petty as “politics”. To me, politics is discussing surface issues and current events, largely what we see on the news. The things I’m concerned with go much deeper than that. I have spent more time than I’d like to admit seeking knowledge and thinking about intricate philosophical issues and how they relate to the world around us. It seems the only things this person views to be philosophy worthy of discussion are abstract concepts that appeal to emotion and don’t necessarily require the knowledge or application of economics, history, logic, evidence, incentives, natural human rights, or the human condition in order to be valid and worthy of support.

    Lastly, I can’t help but wonder if this person realizes that the two institutions in this country that are most in crisis in recent times are in fact religion (notably Christianity) and nearly the entire political system. If anything, we should be talking about these issues more, not less. I believe that the divisive situation we as Americans find ourselves in now is directly related to a lack of understanding between people, specifically because real discussion in this country has been muted for so long, partially because of the advice mentioned earlier that was given to me by this person. But how else do people reach an understanding without talking about these things, and hashing them out in the marketplace of ideas?

    Jason Jewell

    Blizzard, I’m sure most of us have family members who don’t agree with us on important issues like you describe. I, too, have had unproductive exchanges like the one above.

    In my opinion, your relationship with your grandfather is more important than whether you get him to agree with you. Assuming you feel the same, direct confrontation is probably not the way to go here. Maybe a more fruitful avenue would be to ask him to read an article or something manageable that takes our position on an issue and ask him for a reaction to it. But don’t push the issue in such a way that it damages your relationship.


    Thanks Jason. Appreciate the input.


    I find it very hard to convince the left of many of our libertarian values, but I’ve had much more success with those further to the right.

    For instance, my mother is a more moderate. She still votes Republican, but she’s not opposed to the idea of some government programs for one thing or another. I’ve made great strides in getting her closer to my position simply by talking a lot, and she’s beginning to see a lot of my gripes about regulation now that she and her boyfriend are deer farming.

    My father was a Reagan-conservative, but he’s come much closer to libertarianism and I would describe him as a conservative-libertarian. There are only two pieces left of the major libertarian takes that I have yet to convince him of: drugs, and foreign policy. He’s become much more reserved on his foreign policy than he was during the Bush years, and I would say he aligns himself as a bit more hawkish than Rand Paul, but I find that he gets closer to non-interventionism every day. On the drug war, I’ve also gotten him closer to the libertarian position on drugs simply by asking him why if he believes that the government should not be paternal in other facets of life why should they do so on a failed drug war? I think he’s getting much closer.

    So I guess the best way to handle it is know who to target and then use their own thinking as a base for your argument.


    Here’s something I wrote some time ago that might be of help.


    So, you’ve discovered the joys of liberty. You’ve started reading and listening to Rothbard and Rand and Mises and Barnett and Kinsella and Molyneux and dozens of other thrilling writers and YouTubers. You’ve found your way to the treasure sites of the Internet—the Mises Institute, Cato and others. You talk to other like-minded people.

    But what about everyone else?

    Are you filled with an evangelical passion to spread the good news of liberty? If so, how do you go about it?
    If someone shows a polite interest in the subject, do you talk him to death? Flood them with more information than a library could hold? Do you buttonhole total strangers who’ve never done you any harm and talk at them? Do you become angry when your listeners fail to be convinced by your brilliant arguments? Do you wait impatiently for others to stop talking before resuming your monologue?

    There are so many ways to go wrong in preaching the gospel of liberty that it can be useful to learn from the experience of others. There is no experience so cheap as that of other people.

    Michael Cloud has written a number of books on what he calls ‘Libertarian Persuasion’ and I’m going to cherry-pick and adapt some of the ideas from his books that I have found most useful. [Michael Cloud, Secrets of Libertarian Persuasion, Cartersville, GA: Advocates for Self-government, 2004]

    Remember, you’re speaking to people, not machines. Your aim is to persuade them of the truth of what you say not to beat them into intellectual submission. So, talk by all means, but listen, really listen. You’re having a conversation, not giving a lecture. St Francis is reported to have said, “ I preach constantly—sometimes, I use words!” It’s no use winning an argument if you lose the person.

    The most important element in your evangelical efforts is you. If people believe IN you, they’ll be willing to believe you. If they don’t believe IN you—because you’re insensitive, crass, rude, impatient, unwilling to listen, offensive—they won’t believe a single word you say and, instead of adding another liberty lover to our efforts, you’ll have made things worse.

    Let’s say the person you’re talking to brings up an objection. You respond immediately and without pause: ”That’s just the usual X argument which has been conclusively shown to be nonsense.” Good job, Einstein. You’ve managed to insult your soon-to-be-leaving-for-an-urgent-appointment interlocutor. No matter how many times you may have heard this objection, treat it with respect. Failure to do so is to treat the other person disrespectfully. Try pausing for a moment and then saying, “Yes, that’s a good point. If your objection could be met, would that make libertarianism more appealing to you?” On the off chance that your listener asks a question that you can’t immediately answer, do you dodge around and pretend as if you know or do you come right out and say “That’s a really good question. I’ll have to think about that and get back to you. Would you be interested in continuing the conversation then?”

    One thing that people often do when they feel that they’re being browbeaten into a certain position is to resist. So, how about getting them to persuade themselves! Ask, “What one thing more than anything else does Government do that it shouldn’t do at all” or “What does Government do that would be better done by individuals or groups?” Now you’re starting from where your listener is, not from where you’d like him to be. The danger of being disrespectful is greatly lessened. And your listener will be far better convinced by his own ideas than by yours.

    Libertarians are so passionate against so many things that we run the risk of being taken to be naysayers. We also defend ourselves by saying what it is we’re not in favour of.

    The message we need to get across is what we are for—We want little or no government so that people can take personal responsibility for themselves, their families, and their communities. We think that all human dealings should be voluntary. We believe that people should be free if they choose to care for those less fortunate than themselves.

    Suppose that you are successful in persuading your listeners of some libertarian point. Congratulations! Now what? If they wander off, the power of the dominant non-libertarian environment will soon dissipate any effect your words might have had on them. After persuasion, comes action. Get them to agree to do something—buy a book, read an article, go online at, return to continue the conversation with you. Anything, as long as they commit to doing something.

    However persuaded you are of the truth of certain positions—pro-choice or pro-life, the validity or stupidity of religious belief, the evils of social welfare—don’t risk losing your audience by getting in their faces by crassly asserting your beliefs. Some topics are the libertarian equivalent of demilitarized zones on either side of which are your fellow libertarians. Instead, find out what your listeners think and work back from there.
    In summary, these are just a few of the many things to bear in mind when spreading the good news of liberty:
    • Persuade people—don’t win arguments
    • Respect your listeners
    • Try getting your interlocutor to persuade himself by switching sides
    • Be positive FOR liberty
    • Get your listeners to agree to DO something.


    One mistake that people make in regard to politics, and indeed in regard to religion, is that they overlook the extent to which factors other than intellect lead people to make their commitments. For example, in the 19th century, if you were an Irish-American, you were almost certainly a Democrat. If you were a WASP, you were almost certainly a Republican.

    This remains true today. People who want to assemble political coalitions can take some things for granted. White southerners and blacks will be in opposite camps. WASPs and white southerners will generally be in opposite camps.

    The best predictor of one’s political allegiance is one’s parents’ allegiance.

    Your older relative likely has visceral identification with the political party in which he grew up. Life-long identification is very difficult to overcome. At some point, one has to weigh the costs of trying against the benefits.


    Thanks guys. I appreciate the input. I did have a verbal discussion with my Dad a week or so ago on socio-political issues and it went better than in previous times. Still not great though. Oh well. Baby steps I suppose.


    I have found this when dealing with my family who veer left on economic issues, some to extremes, is that when I talk with them I am dealing with ingrained emotions. These emotions are born from political betrayals from past decades when I was a child or yet non-existent, tribalism as Professor Gutzman describes and media labeling. There is no way to resolve these issues in a few conversations, nor is there a way to resolve them when they go unrecognized by the individual.

    On top of that you’re speaking to your Father. To him you are still that little baby he cradled in one arm and whose diapers he changed. This will never change and it definitely affects how seriously he takes your opinion. Expect your ideas will tend to be dismissed because of your “lack of life experience” or similar matters. If you have older siblings then you should expect similar perspectives from them.

    Additionally you’re likely dealing with people whose entire intellectual life has been confined by the spectrum presented by the mainstream. They don’t even have the imagination to even visualize what you’re talking about in many cases. This means that immediately you appear crazy.

    This is why the Liberty movement is much more a youth movement, because the youth have less baggage, aren’t stuck in their ways and have a much more fertile imagination. That’s not to say you shouldn’t ever engage the older generations but don’t expect any mid-conversation conversions.


    Thanks nyokodo. Yes my father seems to be very much an adherent of mainstream moderate-left political ideology.

    In one of our conversations he described what he called “political movements masquerading as legitimate political parties”. He didn’t say it but I knew he was talking about tea party-oriented groups. I then asked him to define what it means to be a “legitimate political party”. I got nothing but crickets in reply.

    It’s one thing to to be willfully ignorant of politics, but it’s just so frustrating because he presents himself as a seeker of knowledge, is constantly reading, and has a library full of books. If he was just ignorant and was holding views based on that ignorance, it would be easier to accept futility of further conversation and walk away.

    Another thing that is vexing to me is that he is a huge fan of Henry David Thoreau, who from what I’ve understand is much more in the libertarian camp than in that of moderate leftism. I read “Civil Disobedience” (at his request!) and was quite pleased with most of the ideas presented. Dad travels to Concord, MA every year to attend the Thoreau Society annual gathering. He has Thoreau coffee mugs, t-shirts, and bumper stickers. I remember quoting to him “A government is best which governs least” and his reply was something to the effect of “…well Thoreau was a complicated man…”, which seems to be his and other mainstreamers default answer to any difficult question (“it’s complicated”).

    So what does Henry David Thoreau offer that would appeal to someone of a left-wing persuasion? How is it possible to love the writings of Thoreau and at the same time be a supporter of Obamacare? Have I just not read enough Thoreau?

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